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Far from a sleeping partner

Richard Nixon had met Henry Kissinger only once before he asked him, on his landslide victory in 1968, to be his National Security Adviser, saying to an aide, ‘I don’t trust Henry but I can use him.’

7 October 2009

12:00 AM

7 October 2009

12:00 AM

Kissinger’s Year: 1973 Alistair Horne

Weidenfeld, pp.457, 20

Richard Nixon had met Henry Kissinger only once before he asked him, on his landslide victory in 1968, to be his National Security Adviser, saying to an aide, ‘I don’t trust Henry but I can use him.’

Richard Nixon had met Henry Kissinger only once before he asked him, on his landslide victory in 1968, to be his National Security Adviser, saying to an aide, ‘I don’t trust Henry but I can use him.’ Kissinger, then at Harvard, had strongly supported Nixon’s rival for the Republican nomination, Nelson Rockefeller, openly deriding Nixon and calling him at one point ‘a hollow man … evil.’

Their subsequent longstanding and successful partnership, surviving Nixon’s pathological jealousy and suspicion of his adviser and his habit of telling crass jokes about ‘yids’ in his presence, is therefore a good example on both sides of Kissinger’s model for international relations: affectless, morally contentless, based simply on achieving the maximum that in his view could be achieved.


It is easy to forget that it was a partnership and that, until he was overborne by Watergate, Nixon’s contribution was as substantial and creative as Kissinger’s. The great opening to China was Nixon’s idea, not Kissinger’s and throughout his presidency his foreign policy was genuinely statesmanlike. I personally remember being addressed by him in September 1973, at a gathering of senior financial officials during the IMF Annual Meetings. Watergate dominated our image of him and in any case we would have expected no more than perfunctory banalities and homilies. But he surprised everyone with an undefensive, unjingoistic, genuinely intelligent, balanced and interesting survey of the world economy.

Alistair Horne, wanting to write about Kissinger, but faced with a personal archive weighing 33 tons, has decided to concentrate on a single year, 1973. The result is an excellent and absorbing book in which he has marshalled a wonderful array of material, including verbatim accounts of seemingly every meeting, conversation and telephone call. The pace at which events move and problems crop up is almost too exhausting to follow, and Kissinger’s harshest critic must admire his ability to handle three or four things at a time and his dedication and tirelessness in pursuing his objectives in the most difficult circumstances.

Nevertheless, there are of course harsh critics. Many say that by effectively accepting the status quo with Soviet Russia in pursuing his fundamental policy of détente, he simply delayed the ultimate collapse achieved later by the confrontational approach of Reagan. To this Kissinger would reply with some force that the collapse of communism was due to the weakness and unsustainability of the system itself rather than to external threats; and that in the 1970s, though he himself thought the Soviets were weaker than military intelligence indicated, no one could be sure; and the danger that, in any case, the Russians themselves might overestimate their strength, and attack if they felt provoked, was too great to be risked.

In addition, he believed that under an over-arching framework of trust it was easier to achieve smaller, regional gains. On this, the aftermath of the Yom-Kippur War, with the virtual removal of Soviet influence from the Middle East, bears him out. On getting leverage from China and Russia to help finish the Vietnam War the evidence is less conclusive. Even here, however, if the communist super-powers helped less than he hoped, they did not actively make his tasks harder, which they certainly could have done.

Critics also allege that in his pursuit of the big picture, little people tend to get trampled on; that his zeal for and success at chatting up dictators reflects a greater comfort with their world-view than with democracy. Certainly it is hard not to have your breath taken away by his comment on Chile: ‘I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.’

Again and again he is struck by the intelligence and all-round wonderfulness of the totalitarian leaders with whom he is negotiating. When you consider what Mao and Zhou had done to their people, the unpleasant question occurs that if as little had been known about what was going on in Nazi Germany as was known about Mao’s China, would Kissinger have seen through Hitler?

But these are speculations. What stands out is what he accomplished in the face of much provocation and a steadily weakening hand because of Watergate. He didn’t solve the problems of the Middle East at the time of the Yom-Kippur War. But who has? He managed better than most US policy- makers before or since to present a nearly even-handed stance towards both Israelis and Arabs. He was criticised by the Arabs for having favoured Israel in ending the war; but also by the Israelis for not supporting them adequately. The evidence suggests an unsurprising lack of objectivity on both sides.

Overall, was he a success? Kissinger himself, with the admirable pessimism that offsets his showmanship, would probably not give an unqualified assent. He was deeply affected by the way his hard-won peace accords over Vietnam unravelled as the North Vietnamese began cheating; and in any case he would probably believe that in his business there is seldom such a thing as success — only continually managing to avoid worse outcomes. On this basis he deserves high marks. Whatever the niggles, and there are some, he must surely be accounted a great man.

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